If you read enough of the historical articles in this publication you might start getting the idea that women didn’t used to drink.
Which was generally true during certain eras of human history when society frowned on the ladies partaking in what was thought to be a male pastime.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and if you dig deep enough you’ll find any number of drunken heroines.
Ever heard of Long Megg? The unofficial duchess of the Thames district in Elizabethan England? No? Too bad. She was huge. Huge in just about every way someone can be. Imagine Megg coming at you from down the street; she’s close to seven feet tall and weighs a shade better than 350 pounds. There are scars on her knuckles from her occasional participation in boxing matches. And she’s utterly shit-faced. And singing. With good reason—men have come from all over Europe to see if they can out drink her and she laid every last one of them under the table.
Would you get out of her way? Sure you would, and so did everyone else. Nobody with any sense messed with Long Megg.
Or how about Emily D. West Morgan? Most people know her by her nickname, the Yellow Rose of Texas. She single-handedly saved the nascent Republic of Texas from the predations of Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — the same Santa Anna who took the Alamo. As he marched northward through Texas, chasing Sam Houston’s bedraggled troops, he overtook the tiny burg of North Washington. One of his captives was the Yellow Rose.
Santa Anna could go hardly an hour without dosing himself with food, women and opium, and it was only a matter of time before he worked his way to the Yellow Rose. Knowing that Houston’s army was planning a sneak attack, she allowed herself to be taken into Santa Anna’s tent, where she went to work on El Presidente with several bottles from her personal stock of champagne. When Houston’s troops attacked, Santa Anna was so befuddled he fled into the scrub brush wearing only a silk dressing gown. He was captured the next day. The wily Yellow Rose of Texas was immortalized in a song that is sung by drunken Texans to this day.
Or Mrs. Chung, the most feared pirate in Chinese history? She drank rice and plum wine by the gallon, including a special cocktail of her own invention, made by soaking the heart of a captured enemy in rice wine for a week. She’d polish off the human-heart infused wine then fry up the organ in a wok for dinner. At one time, Mrs. Chung’s pirate armada was thought to be the fifth largest navy in the world. It took the combined navies of China, England, and the Netherlands to finally take her down. Even after her capture she remained a popular folk hero in China, surviving well into her eighties as the owner of one of the most popular saloons in the country.
I could go on, trolling through history, unearthing legions of exceptional female drunkards, but to truly appreciate the powerful combination of estrogen and alcohol we have to return to the very dawn of Western civilization. Long before individuals like Megg, the Yellow Rose and Chung made their marks in a world dominated by men, a powerful and ferocious tribe of women ruled the vines.
These roistering hellions from ancient Greece were the original lady drunkards, the templates from which all future contenders were drawn.
They were the handmaidens of Dionysus, the god of wine, and believe you me, if you were a god, you’d want handmaidens like the Maenads. They intoxicated themselves on bowl after bowl of explosively potent, blood-red wine and spread the word of their Lord with extraordinary vigor and diligence.
Dionysus wasn’t at all popular with Greek men when his cult flowed out of the East and set up shop in Attica. Athenian patriarchs were suspicious of religious rites wherein womenfolk got all liquored-up, danced naked in the streets and engaged in all sorts of shocking and lewd behavior.
According to legend, one Greek king in particular, Pentheus, was particularly displeased with the Maenads, and decided to put an end to their frightening debauchery once and for all. He summoned a platoon of soldiers and went marching off into the woods around Mount Cithaeron to make some arrests and restore the status quo.
The Maenads had other ideas.
They left one soldier alive and sent him scurrying back to town, where he told the tale to a throng of antsy spectators. It involved blood. Lots and lots of blood. And intestines flying all over the place. And the violent removal of heads. And the positioning of one specific head, Pentheus’s, atop an ash branch, and the subsequent parading of said head through the city’s gates in the hands of a Maenad named Agave, who, as it happened, was Pentheus’s mother. Cripes!
But that, of course, is just a legend, undoubtedly propagated by the male chauvinist pigs of the day. In actuality, the drunken female worshippers of Dionysus probably never tore anyone limb from limb or trotted about with heads on sticks. Their rites were primarily grand bouts of inebriation, followed by hours of dancing and a slight upturn in healthy and harmless promiscuity. But even these relatively benign acts were enough to make the Athenian patriarchs twitchy (though the men’s efforts at quashing the wine rites consisted mostly of anemic speeches and impotent displays of Apollonian piety).
The wine cult grew at a bewildering rate, and before long it became the single most popular sect in all of Greece. By the time Greeks had arisen to their full splendor, laying the foundations of Western science, art, warfare and philosophy, the cult attracted thousands of worshippers, female and male alike, to the annual Festival of Dionysus, a week-long bender of such gleeful decadence it’d make the worst frat-house story you’ve ever heard seem like a particularly banal episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Ancient history records the names of three women of such heart-stopping beauty they have stepped into the realm of legend: Nefertiti, ancient queen of all Egypt, the curves of whose neck were said to cause men to faint; Helen of Troy, who’s face launched a thousand ships; and Cleopatra, the Egyptian monarch who almost single-handedly sank the entire Roman Empire. Give Nefertiti and Helen their props, for they were beauties of divine stature, but save the last stool at the bar—the tippler’s dais, if you will—for Cleopatra. Of the lot, she was the one true drunkard, the tipsy North Star in our wobbly universe.
A steady intake of high-end imported wine defined Cleopatra’s daily routine. An earthenware decanter greeted her each morning. Another accompanied her to dreamland at night. She drank wine with her food, on her throne, in her private time, and between the sheets. When she wanted to relax, she bathed in a vat of it. Under her rule, vintners wielded more power than many priests; and why not? The vintners’ efforts helped douse her fiery temper, while priests were just annoying.
Cleopatra was also very adept at using wine as a weapon. As a stateswoman and politician, few rulers of either sex have been as effective or as ruthless.
The first foreign diplomat to sway under her kohl-eyed gaze was none other than Julius Caesar. He ventured into Cleopatra’s realm expecting an easily manipulated feminine daintiness; instead found himself face to face with a woman of singular intelligence, a disarming and ribald wit, and looks that were surely gifts from on high. He was smitten at once, but managed to hold his libidinous horses in check — until the wine appeared. It far surpassed anything of Roman vintage. Several deep cups taken in combination with Cleopatra’s many charms brought the great Caesar to his knees. He forgot his lofty station, his wife and the fact that he was only marginally popular back in Rome.
Julius Caesar was intoxicated in every sense of the word.
Things looked ripe for a political merger between Rome and Egypt. With Cleopatra’s help, Caesar came to feel that all parties would benefit from such a pact. But then he went and got himself all stabbed to death by Brutus and his cabal of assassins on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.
Cleopatra was, to say the least, miffed at Caesar’s demise. Her carefully laid plans expired with the Roman emperor, and now that the Empire was in a state of political unrest, she had to be on guard for a Roman invasion. On top of everything else, she was forced to marry her cousin, in abeyance to Egyptian pharaonic custom. His name was Ptolemy XIII, and he was all of eleven years old. For Cleopatra, governing through a bratty child while simultaneously listening for Roman hoofbeats was a source of never-ending stress. Wine baths helped some, but palace servants found their Queen in a foul temper most of the time.
She needn’t have worried. As things turned out, the next Roman to open communications with Egypt was the famed general Mark Antony.
The pair first met when Cleopatra sailed to Mark Antony’s palace at Tarsus in a gold-plated barge, surrounded by wine-bearing nymphs, and dressed as a love goddess, complete with a see-through gown. Delectable young girls pranced about in various stages of undress, causing more than a few ripples among Antony’s legionnaires. Antony himself — a feared military tactician, clever politician and philosophical stoic—fell completely apart. He cast aside his wife and scampered off like a puppy with Cleopatra to her palace in Alexandria.
Rome was outraged, and the Empire found itself split in two, one half ruled by Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the other by Caesar’s son, Octavian; civil war huffing and puffing on the horizon.
Mark Antony, besotted and emboldened by a constant supply of fine Egyptian wine, felt he was not only right, but invincible to boot. He was soon disabused of his overweening notions when an armada of Roman ships — commanded by the brilliant sea captain, Agrippa — kicked the living shit out of Antony and Cleopatra’s navy at the Battle of Actium. Antony was so devastated, he killed himself with a knife to the gut, while Cleopatra fled back to Alexandria. Sensing her impending doom, Cleopatra took a long milk bath, then a long wine bath, then whacked herself by enticing an asp to bite her wrist.
There is a moral here for Lady Drunkards. The next time you decide to crank your feminine wiles and charms up to full volume in order to cadge a drink from some hapless barfly, don’t feel guilty. You are channeling Cleopatra, and she would surely approve.
Besides, you just might, in the end, wind up with the keys to a kingdom.
(Note: The author is indebted to the works of Camille Paglia, Joan Druett, H.D.F. Kitto and Carl Kerenyi.)
Ladies Thirst, Part Two: Meet an Irish pirate queen, a pair of tipsy female buccaneers from the Caribbean, a wildcat from the American West and the most famous lady outlaw who ever lived.